Take notes: How TLH is Learning From EG
After a shocking 0-3 loss to Evil Geniuses in the Losers Finals of the 2022 Spring Playoffs, Team Liquid’s dressing room is predictably quiet. Quiet enough that, through SQUAD’s camera crew, you can hear the sound of the players’ shoes shuffling against the carpet. After a moment, Liquid head coach André "Guilhoto" Pereira Guilhoto ruptures the silence.
“This is obviously very disappointing for all of us,” he opens, “but I think it’s also important that instead of trying to make a conclusion in the heat of all of this, that everyone individually finds the time at some point to take a step back and look at not only this game, this series, but also throughout the whole split, what we need to change to achieve everything that we want. [...] Everyone needs to be able to get to those conclusions in a mental space that is not as emotional as now.”
He lets the silence linger, then wraps up. “But we need to get there.”
After a stretch of nearly two months and one international tournament, it’s now time for Team Liquid (now, Team Liquid Honda) to get there. Team Liquid - and all the legacy franchises in the LCS - have to take a look at what EG’s dark horse, majority-NA team did to tear through every legacy franchise in the playoffs and see what lessons can be learned from EG’s run in Spring Playoffs and at MSI 2022.
To get an idea for myself, I spoke with Liquid’s head coach, Guilhoto, and strategic coach, Jonas “Kold” Andersen, to get the team’s perspective both on what went wrong for them but what went right for EG. At the same time, I compared notes from interviews that myself and others have done with EG’s players across the season. One of the first things I noticed was EG’s approach to the best-of-one and how much they improved once it was time for the best-of-fives.
From 9-9 to 9-0
To say Evil Geniuses’ run to their first LCS title in the 2022 Spring Playoffs was unexpected would be an understatement. After an impressive 2nd place finish in the 2022 LCS Lock In, EG struggled in the Spring Split to a 9-9 record (10-9 after tiebreakers).
Contrary to the expectations of most, EG put up a good fight against TL in their first match, bringing the 1st seed to five games before absolutely running through the lower bracket of the 2022 LCS Spring Playoffs. After eliminating FlyQuest from the post-season 3-1, EG swept Cloud9, Team Liquid, and 100 Thieves to win their first LCS title and punch a ticket to the 2022 Mid-Season Invitational.
EG went from 9-9 to 9-0 in a level up that might be unprecedented in the history of the LCS. Part of what created that big shift was the team’s preference towards best-of-fives and their unique approach to the best-of-one.
EG’s players have been vocal about the fickle nature of the best-of-one format during the 2022 LCS Spring Split, and in an interview with Inven Global towards the end of the split, Evil Geniuses jungler Kacper "Inspired" Słoma explained how the best-of-five leaned in favor of risk-taking teams like his.
“Taking more risks in the draft is definitely more possible in best-of-fives than best-of-ones. If you want to win bo1s you need to always just draft a safe composition and not give your enemies too many win conditions.”
Inspired hits on a weakness of the best-of-one that League talkings heads have been chewing on for years. In a best-of-one, teams almost play too much to win, killing the experimentation. According to some analysts, it may even be a part of why NA traditionally shows such a safe, risk-averse style on the international stage.
“I don't think it's that fun to play and I don't think you learn a lot from it, so I think we will be able to pull out some different picks from game-to-game in a best-of-five series. If we lose with a certain composition, we can just change everything around and play something completely different, so this is a big plus for us, for sure.”
That regular season experimentation that Inspired mentioned would bear fruit in the LCS Spring Playoffs - though not in the ways (and stats) you might expect. When looking at EG’s statistics as a team between the regular split and playoffs, a good amount of them are numerically inferior in the postseason. While EG’s team KD ratio was obviously better in a 14-4 Spring Playoffs run than it was in a 10-9 Spring Split, the eventual LCS champion actually placed less wards, cleared less wards, and secured less dragons and Baron Nashor buffs. Crucially, EG’s Gold Differential at 15 minutes went from +830 to +329, and their First Blood rate dropped from 58% all the way to 28%.
So what made EG so formidable in the LCS Spring Playoffs?
EG traded a bit of their early game aggression from the LCS Spring Split for a far more consistent mid game and stellar teamfight throughout the postseason. Across a rocky split, EG had found a relatively set way to play in the LCS Spring Playoffs: AD carry Kyle “Danny” Sakamaki and support Philippe “Vulcan” Laflamme would occasionally scuffle in the early levels with their opponents, but mostly focused on getting Danny to a point of power on scaling teamfight AD carries, particularly Jinx.
Inspired would focus almost entirely on himself in the early game to gain an individual advantage over the enemy jungler before transitioning to a more utility-focused build in the mid-game to protect Danny, often foregoing more damage to build items like Anathema’s Chains and Knight’s Vow to ensure the young AD carry could be the primary source of damage for EG in teamfights. Mid laner Joseph “jojopyun” Pyun’s CS Differential at 10 minutes was lower than it was in the LCS Spring Split, but he was a far more consistent roaming presence to the side lanes on champions like Ryze and Twisted Fate.
This isn’t to say that EG didn’t improve their level of play from the LCS Spring Split to the LCS Spring Playoffs - they absolutely did - but their success had more to do with a solidification of team identity and more consistent drafting than anything else. Though, Kold also credits another, more intangible factor: Momentum.
“I think they got a lot of confidence from their run in the lower bracket,” said Kold. “I don't think they necessarily got much better, and I also think our play dipped a bit between the two series' against them.”
Here, Kold alludes to the Losers Bracket Buff. By mounting a big run in the lower side of the bracket, teams get a rush of momentum and a sudden burst of experience, along with heaps of footage to review. As Riot’s brought on more double-elimination tournaments, there’s been more conversation about how beneficial that momentum can be - and you can see examples of it in G2’s run through Europe as well as TSM’s run in Summer 2020.
The momentum within the series itself was even more visible. Looking at the scores, the first series that resulted in a 3-2 win for TL looks much closer than the 3-0 win for EG. However, when looking at the nature of EG’s sweep of TL, all three games were quite competitive. TL nearly had game 1 in the bag if it wasn’t for, well…
“I think it's so hard to evaluate that last series because when you play on a big stage, the feeling of momentum is very powerful, and ours kind of got destroyed after game 1,” Kold admitted.
That said, Kold knows it wasn’t all momentum that propelled EG forward. Kold also pointed towards the big improvement in draft for EG between the Spring Split and the Spring Playoffs. “I think EG was one of the worst teams in terms of drafting in the regular split. That was something that they got better at for playoffs. They were a team that was able to develop a clear identity and one way to play the game and allocate resources,” explained the TL coach. “They were just more specialized, but during the split, I felt like they weren't necessarily doing that in best-of-one matches. Their drafts were questionable a lot of the time.”
However, these questionable drafts too were part of EG’s plan. In EG’s championship press conference, Han "Rigby" Earl, the assistant coach, explained that EG’s drafting was by design and that the team was looking to push the limits of their flexibility instead of settling into comfort before the postseason. “If I think about it, our biggest difference from other teams is that we never actually set a comfort zone. That's why we struggled during the regular split,” said Rigby. “Even when we lost with picks that weren't popular in the league, we still went with them if we thought they were good.”
“The most popular example would be Ornn,” Rigby continued. “Every team was just blind-picking Ornn for good teamfights, and we were like, ‘Let them pick Ornn. We don't give a fuck. We have Impact!’”
Rigby’s words came within the context of EG’s finals sweep of 100 Thieves - powered by another postseason overperformance that Impact has become known for. In game 1, EG top laner Jeong “Impact” Eon-young weathered the storm admirably on Ornn against the Aatrox of 100 Thieves top laner Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho. In game 2, Ssumday took the Ornn and Impact pulled out his pocket Mordekaiser for the first time in 2022 and absolutely laid waste to 100 Thieves.
In 100 Thieves’ post-game press conference, when head coach Bok “Reapered” Han-gyu was asked if he expected Impact’s Mordekaiser, his answer was brief: “Not at all.”
EG’s process was to sacrifice optimal results in the regular season to experiment with their limitations, and the process resulted in a team with a stronger grasp of their identity than any other in the LCS Spring Playoffs. Danny’s most played champion was Jinx and jojopyun’s was Ryze, but individually, the young carries on EG were able to do just as much on champions like Xayah and Viktor, respectively. EG’s focus throughout spring made them nearly impossible to ban out when playoffs came as they had established a team identity that, with slight adjustments, could be executed on Summoner’s Rift through a plethora of picks.
After the results of their process came to fruition in the best-of-five format, all Evil Geniuses needed was a little momentum to lift the LCS trophy and head to their first Mid-Season Invitational.
Plane to Busan
Evil Geniuses’ minimum expectations at the 2022 Mid-Season Invitational were pretty clearly set. A top 4 finish at the event as one of the four major regions in League of Legends esports would have to be the least of what the LCS champion could accomplish, especially since that wasn’t always a guarantee for North America. Just last year, Cloud9 failed to make it to the knockout stage at MSI 2021, with PCS representative PSG Talon taking the spot in the bracket instead. Add that to the fact that EG looked like a much stronger team throughout best-of-fives thus far in 2022, and it was clear that anything less than semifinals would be a disappointment for Evil Geniuses.
Fortunately for EG, their paths through both the group stages at MSI were pretty clear-cut. EG’s group stage results hit right in line with the expectations set for them. They couldn’t seem to beat the EU rep, G2, but they did have an impressive win over tournament favorite T1 and racked up enough wins to secure the 4th seed heading into the knockout stage. They also avoided losses at the hands of PSG Talon and Saigon Buffalo. These wins were them punching at their expected weight but internationally, it’s the bad, underdog losses that knock NA out before the knockout.
If history was anything to go by, EG would receive a buff from the best-of-five format present in the knockout stage. Unfortunately for the North American representative, the buff wouldn’t be enough because they were matched up against 1st seed and eventual champions, Royal Never Give Up. EG refused to back down against RNG and did their best to make the games competitive, but ultimately lost 3-0 and settled for a top 4 finish alongside G2 Esports.
Like so many NA teams abroad, EG struggled against teams that punished them in ways their LCS compatriots couldn’t. Other major region top laners exploited Impact’s play far more than he was used to domestically, and with Jinx falling out of the top level of the AD carry meta, Danny had a slow start to the tournament. The MSI teams knew to ban Ryze away from jojopyun, but the young mid laner handled the pressure well and, alongside Inspired, was arguably EG’s best performer throughout the tournament.
Still, Guilhoto was satisfied with EG’s performance at MSI 2022. “I think they pretty much fulfilled my expectations. I think that regardless of what teams say, NA this year has been stronger than in previous years,” said Guilhoto. “I would have been very surprised if any team representing NA at MSI would have been behind a minor region.”
“They had some surprising results against Asian teams and they had some disappointments by losing so many games against EU, but overall, they had a good performance and they stayed in the exact spot that I expected them to be in.”
“What I really liked about EG's MSI performance was that I felt like they stayed true to who they were as a team, and I think that's a good sign, especially when you play against some of the best teams in the World,” said Kold. “In that way, it was promising. Fingers crossed that the experience they got, especially some of their younger players, will elevate the league overall.”
When a team attends MSI (or any weaker-region team heads to a big international event in any esport) the general hope is that that team returns with the wisdom to fuel the whole region. The higher level of competition, and in the case of MSI 2022, the quality of Korean solo queue, will stay with the representing team when they return, adding a few inches to that region’s ceiling as a result.
While what each team can take away from EG’s performance at MSI 2022 will vary, Kold and Guilhoto both agree that EG’s steadfast resolution to their identity was a huge aspect of any success the North American representative enjoyed at MSI. “In terms of taking things away from EG, everyone knowing their role in a team and being committed to it will definitely raise your chances of succeeding,” said Kold.
“They also didn't play scared, which was the biggest surprise to me,” Guilhoto added. “They didn't play with fear, which NA teams were notorious for in the past. I think they went there with their identity and stayed true to it. They never backed down from it.”
“The importance of having an identity and a specialization that everyone can be around and be on the same page together is fundamental. That's something that we worked on a lot during this off-season, and it obviously worked out for EG too in terms of their results.”
Guilhoto was impressed by EG’s fearlessness and commitment to their team’s identity - impressed enough to make it a priority during Liquid’s offseason. But he did express skepticism on exactly what EG’s performance at MSI can do for the North American region as a whole. “I don't want to speak against what EG was able to accomplish because they did something that a lot of other NA teams couldn't do, which is fulfill their ‘obligation’,” said the TL head coach. “North America needs to fulfill the obligation of constantly being top 4 at MSI and needs to, at minimum, be the fourth best region in the world when it comes to Worlds. What EG achieved cannot be an exception, which it is right now.”
He’s not wrong, either. EG’s run at MSI 2022 was only the third time in seven iterations of the tournament that North America has made it to the knockout stage. The other two teams, Counter Logic Gaming in 2016 and Team Liquid in 2019, made it all the way to the MSI finals but both failed to win (against SK Telecom T1 and G2 Esports, respectively).
Guilhoto hopes that EG’s top 4 placing at MSI and their impressive win over T1 in the Rumble Stage will spark confidence in North America in the same way that Misfits’ five game epic against SK Telecom T1 at the 2017 World Championship showed the rest of EU that elite Asian teams were beatable.
“It starts a whole movement of more belief in North America. In Europe, Misfits was first, then the year after, Fnatic made it to Worlds finals, then G2 made it to Worlds finals. But it all started with that series against Misfits,” Guilhoto recalled. “I still remember the momentum of 'the gap is closing' and the belief in that, and that's what needs to be catalyzed in North America. I really want to stress that the result that EG got needs to be the standard for North America and cannot be something celebrated as an overachievement.”
It would be fitting too, if this Team Liquid Honda roster were the one to do what Misfits did for EU. After all, it shares a certain French superstar AD Carry in Hans Sama. But it’s still a long way to Worlds, through an NA region that has noticeably improved. Taking note of EG’s success will only be the first step on that path. For the final step, Team Liquid will need to become the squad that forces the rest of NA to fetch their pen and paper.